CTR is digital media’s own Groundhog Day

Melvin Holman, chief business development officer at Platform161, considers the pros and cons of the click as a meaningful KPI.

It’s a surprising fact, but even in 2019, the click is still a thing. Every day people run their daily reports and zone in on a single column. To the exclusion of all others. More worrying still, there will be valuable time spent, and serious discussion around the numbers in that column going either up or down. No doubt about it, that line labelled ‘clicks’ has a lot to answer for. Especially as it’s a legacy from way before the smartphone took over the majority of media consumption.

But surely digital advertising is better than this – and we’ve evolved immeasurably in recent times – surely CTR (clickthrough rate) isn’t still news? For the answer, look no further than a recent campaign by the IAB in the UK. Its aim was to call out – with tongue in cheek – what it called the “clickheads” who still swear by the metric. The campaign resulted in what it claimed, with more than a hint of irony, was its highest ever clickthrough rate.

The angry response to #clickheads that came back from the local advertisers’ association ISBA in turn could be read in a number of ways. But one thing is sure – whether it’s advertiser marketing teams themselves, or procurement departments above forcing the click upon them – much as we might like to think otherwise, CTR is digital advertising’s very own Groundhog Day.

A brief history of the click (and CPC Networks)
When I ran my first display campaign in 2000, clickthrough rate was my only proof of value, which would decide which publisher or sales house would get the big slice of budget in the following month. After all, in those days the click was the only concrete performance metric you had. Many of us were so focused on performance, we probably weren’t even aware that one day, awareness in digital would be something you could measure. Not entirely coincidentally, this is also when the infamous frequency cap of three impressions per 24 hours kicked in. The ultimate way of boosting your CTR, but no doubt also alienating to some customers.

CTR even became a value proposition in its own right in the mid 2000s. Click networks popped up, offering (longtail) performance inventory with a cost-per-click model. Even giants like MSN introduced their own CPC networks, with others following fast in their footsteps.

Back here in 2019, when looking at the wealth of campaign data available, CTR has become arguably the least significant section of the reporting value chain – at least in the majority of cases. By way of putting this particular Punxsutawney Phil to hibernate for good, here’s the definitive list of reasons why:

Awareness/branding – Perhaps in 2008, a click provided concrete proof that the consumer actually saw your ad, but at the risk of stating the obvious, today we have multiple (and much more reliable) ways of monitoring and verifying this.

Fraud – The truth is that click fraud has been on the rise since 2010, and turned out to be even harder to identify than impression fraud. On desktop specifically, 70 per cent of overall click behavior is suspicious. Connected to that – and making the problem worse – lots of predictive algorithms still optimize towards the click, without allowing for any understanding of the user/bot behind it.

Mobile misclicks – Mobile devices are the place to go to when it comes to high CTRs. At the same time, the number of so-called misclicks is also relatively high on this type of inventory, showing an equally high level of bounce rates. This may in part be down to nothing more insidious than ‘fat finger syndrome’, but that said, it only adds even more fuel to the fire that clicks have lost their meaning. In what is now overwhelmingly a mobile majority business, that, if nothing else, should convince us to switch attention to other metrics.

Murray without MacDowell
But does that mean the click is totally obsolete today? No. Because even though I would still include it for nostalgic reasons alone (a world completely divorced from CTR would after all feel like Groundhog Day’s Bill Murray without Andie MacDowell), against the odds, the click still does add actual value.

However, what’s needed first is an about-face in how most of the industry evaluates the metric – especially in a ‘mobile majority’ media landscape. What I’m referring to is that CTR’s worth should be determined by the data received (and optimized on) after the click, not before. Identifying the qualified prospect or desired user based on post-click data will be key, which could be a simple time-on-site metric or a minimum of visited pages.

So, where platforms always executed a single KPI-driven strategy, it will become ever more important to enable a multi-dimensional approach to optimization. In that way, we will see a more robust, altogether greener future for campaign measurement ahead. And a more diverse one that incorporates many different measures – CTR included.